A focus on Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, at the crossroads between Jerusalem and coast, has been inhabited since earliest times, going back to the pre-biblical Canaanite civilization from whom its idolatrous name originates.

Dr. Yudah Govrin at the archeological site at Tel Beit Shemesh (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Dr. Yudah Govrin at the archeological site at Tel Beit Shemesh
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
If you stick a spade in the ground anywhere in Israel, there’s a good chance that you will uncover some ancient artifact.
Israel, which in its long history has been overrun by dozens of foreign armies, is a prime place for such discoveries, each group having left behind some relic that has remained buried beneath the sands of time.
But in revealing these ancients relics, the questions arises as to what you are going to do with them. Typically, a cluster of government organizations will descend on the location to decide whether what you have uncovered is worthy of preservation. If it is, then the question arises as to how it is to be preserved. Will it stay in the place where it was found, or be removed to a museum? Alternatively, will it be covered over for good, allowing a modern developer to build over it?
These questions have recently arisen around the ancient city of Beit Shemesh in the center of the country, adjacent to route 38. At the end of 2018, an archaeological dig revealed a large settlement that was apparently used as a center for the production of olive oil. This was a major discovery since the site was dated as flourishing during the late First Temple period, around the eighth to seventh century BCE. This made the site particularly significant in that it is clearly connected to the Biblical period as mentioned in the second Book of Kings.
What was surprising to the archaeologists was that this site went against the perceived assumptions of the period – that after the Assyrian king Sennacherib (2 Kings, Chapters 18 and 19) had plundered much of the kingdom of Judea, destroying many of the fortified cities including Beit Shemesh, the cities were left as ghostly reminders of the vicious Assyrian invasion. The dig in Beit Shemesh clearly shows that this city, at least, was revived, under the aegis of the Assyrian or Babylonian empires and indeed flourished as an important economic center for the kingdom of Judea.
“It’s significant,” explains Dr. Yehuda Govrin, chief archaeologist on the site, “that the development of the area took place lower down, at the foot of the Tel. Any rebuilding of the Tel might have suggested a potential rebellion. But lower down, development was permissible.”
The Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem saw a unique opportunity for creating a special exhibition dedicated to this site and to the issues it raised. According to the director, Amanda Weiss, the decision to create an exhibition happened spontaneously. “One of our guides told me about the finds that were being uncovered there,” said Weiss. “She said to me ‘You must come and see for yourself while they are digging.’ So I grabbed Leora (her deputy) and a couple of other of the curators and rushed down in my car. This was last November. It was a very memorable day. Not only was it an exciting place to visit – we saw the site in the pouring rain! We were drenched, but that was part of the experience, with all the beautiful fragrances of the flowers. In just four months we arranged this exhibition.”
This was no mean feat, as Weiss explains: “To put up an exhibition of archaeology in Israel, where there are so many regulations, so much bureaucracy, and where you have to wait to examine each of the pieces, and so on. Usually these procedures can take a long time, sometimes years. Here we managed to bypass these procedures. None of the pieces in the exhibition, for example, passed through the normal formal process. We did it, too, with the blessing and encouragement of the Israel Antiquities Authority.”
The reason for the alacrity was partly because all the authorities involved – including the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department, the Hebrew Union College’s archaeology division, the National Transportation Infrastructure Company of Israel, the National Parks Authority, and the Beth Shemesh Municipality – agreed that this project was worth preserving.
The issue before them was how to preserve the site and yet simultaneously allow for an expansion of the existing Route 38 that passes right through the dig. There are no easy answers. Indeed, the Bible Lands Museum has presented the whole issue as an ongoing one to which the public is invited to add their opinion.
To aid the decision process, the museum has offered up a number of possible solutions that try to balance all the various elements. “We have made a point of not offering any complete solution,” says Weiss. “All the alternatives are at this point speculative suggestions.”
Beit Shemesh is at the crossroads between Jerusalem and the coast. As such it has been inhabited since earliest times, going back to the pre-biblical Canaanite civilization from whom its idolatrous name probably originates: “House of the Sun goddess.” Many archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of settlements in the area from the Middle Bronze Age (which included a temple), the most ancient iron workshop in the world, a fortified city with an advanced water system from the time of the early Kingdom of Judea, a Byzantine monastery, and an industrial area with wine and olive presses from the same period.
In modern times, archaeologists have been conducting so-called “rescue excavations” which are conducted in an area that is being considered for urban or other development.
The rescue excavations of Govrin at Tel Beit Shemesh – whose finds are on display in the current exhibition – have been conducted for about a year, from early 2018 to January 2019. These excavations, plus those already carried out earlier, cover about 22.5 dunams (about five and half acres) of land and are not yet finished.
The total area of Tel Beit Shemesh is around 30 dunams (7.5 acres). Different parts of it have been excavated at different times, from the 1910’s until the present. From 1990 until now, there has been a Tel Aviv University dig at the summit of the tel. Unrelated to those, but connected to the planned expansion of Highway 38 running through the eastern slope of the tel, are two separate teams digging two adjacent areas of rescue excavations, being conducted by Dr. Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University and by Govrin.
What is of particular interest here is the role of the Beit Shemesh municipality. It might be assumed that a town with a large ultra-Orthodox population such as Beit Shemesh would not be that concerned with conservation.
However the connection to the Bible on the one hand and the potential importance of the site for tourism on the other has seen the municipality enthusiastically support the conservation. This was a point made at the opening of the exhibition by the recently elected mayor of the city, Dr. Aliza Bloch.
Govrin adds another reason: “It was Anglo-Saxon immigrants to Beit Shemesh who pushed for Aliza Bloch, the haredim weren’t interested. We are very lucky that we have Bloch as the mayor – she’s very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the dig, and sees it as a potential tourist attraction.”
Another reason for the museum to be excited about the present exhibition is that it coincides with the initiation of their new Focus Gallery. This is a relatively small space near the entrance of the museum dedicated to special displays of objects from the museum’s collection, or for exhibitions deemed important to the wider community. “The present exhibition is a perfect example of our intention,” says Weiss. “Moreover, the public has an opportunity to voice their say in what could prove to be a precedent.”
The exhibition shows examples of findings from the dig. These include one of the 15 large storage jars used for olive oil, suggesting that the oil produced was for export to the wider Assyrian Empire. There are samples of the 200 jar handles found here, all of which are marked with inscriptions, including ones written in Paleo-Hebrew script which say that they belong to the king, while others mention one of four royal storage centers around the country. These are from the period prior to the invasion of Sennacharib, at the time of Hezekiah. Some carry the names of tribal officials. These findings put Beit Shemesh in the top league alongside Jerusalem, Lachish, and Ramat Rachel as an important administrative center. The fact that it flourished in the period of the Assyrian Empire may be gathered from other findings such as shekel weights (of two or four shekels) that could have been used in tax collections, as well as mercantile trading.
Another section shows mainly broken figurines, perhaps smashed because they were idols, but one that is complete. This is of a woman, probably Aphrodite, representing some kind of local fertility cult. Similar statues have been unearthed in Jerusalem. Perhaps this is what the ancient prophets were railing against and voiced their warning of divine punishment. Some of the statues have a head of birds or horses. In the time of Hezekiah and Josiah’s reforms all of these were smashed.
Though all of these statues are rather small in size, one of them stands out because it is comparatively large. This is the statue of Bes – an Egyptian goddess, the only one found in Israel so far. She was worshiped in Egypt but was also very popular in the Levant and in Judea. She was meant to frighten off evil demons and spirits and indeed looks pretty grotesque. Interestingly, this statue was found in a private house rather than in a shrine or temple.
Alongside these actual findings is a continuously running video showing the site and Route 38 that passes through the center of the dig, so a visitor has a clear view of the issues confronting those involved in this project. If you are interested in putting forward an opinion, you have until August when the exhibit will come down.
Govrin, head of one of the few independent archaeological companies in Israel, explains his own preference as to the future of the site. “It has to be the tunnel that would take a widened road under the dig. An expansion of Route 38 above ground would ruin the site forever.”
In the meantime, he has to wait for a decision from the authorities who will determine the fate of this unique site.